Tonga - The Full Experience, Part 1


Heilala + Nuku'alofa!

Malo a lelei! (Hello)

Tonga was everything we hoped it would be but it was also so much more - a rollercoaster of sights, smells, tastes and emotions.

We arrived into Fuaʻamotu International Airport on the main island; Tongatapu at around 9.30pm. The fact we left home for two flights at 9am that morning meant it was a LONG day but coming into a luscious 22 degrees was lovely and hard to believe we had finally got there after months of waiting.

We were serenaded out of the airport with ukuleles before being picked up in the Heilala Lodge van for the one hour ride to the west end of the island on Haʻatafu beach. The kids eventually fell asleep on the drive after copious amounts of 'are we there yet' while Dave and I marvelled at the dogs on every corner, in every driveway, on the sides of all roads, in every condition (More to come about the dogs).

11pm Saturday night: We rolled into bed and listened to the waves and crickets, unsure of our surroundings but excited to wake up and see where we were! 


7am: "COCKADOODLEDOOOOOO" - there are roosters. I guess I'm not surprised and pleased it was a decent time of the morning for it! We walk out of the fale to a breezy day but warm, Perfectly warm! We are surrounded by coconut palms, hibiscus flowers and frangipani. We are only 10 metres from sand, 40 metres from the water. Bright excited eyes and "Can we go to the beach!?"

The Heilala Lodge fale's. Just behind the ones on the left is Haʻatafu beach.

The Heilala Lodge fale's. Just behind the ones on the left is Haʻatafu beach.

Heilala was recommended to us by our friend Sarah (Our Home Sweet World) who visited with her husband in 2017. Since then there has been a change in ownership and management but from what I can tell things were mostly running normally with the new team one month in and finding their feet.

Breakfast was from 8am-9.30am and was brought out to you as a small range of seasonal fruit and two pieces of thick white bread (which you will see all over Tonga). Some days we also had thin pieces of fried sausage and one day we had some divine pancakes smothered in a coconut caramel! Unfortunately cyclone Gita did a fair but of damage to the papaya and other crops back in Feburary but watermelons were lush and plentiful along with local oranges and NZ apples.

Our first day here was a Sunday and as Tonga's population is 94% christian or other religions, Sundays are officially closed for business. No buses, taxis, shops or anything which was actually perfectly fine for us! 

tonga coconuts.jpg

For lunch we picked on snacks we brought over (yes you can bring over anything that is commercially bagged and seals and have even heard of people bring vacuum packed meat!) and for an early dinner we walked next door (100m along the sand) to Holtys Hideaway, owned by an Australian couple and had burgers and bourbon (phew!) - more about the food later on.

The whole day we played in and out of the water, hung out in hammocks and let the reality of the situation kick in - after all none of us have been to an island and we hadn't taken the kids out of the country before!

7pm: Bedtime for all of us and an exciting day ahead.


Monday! In to it!

We decided to catch the bus from the west end of Tonga, one hour into the capital - Nuku'alofa. It is either this option for $1-2 TOP per person or a taxi at $40 TOP ($26 NZD), us tight-arses knew our choice early on. The bus. Simple - stand on the side of the road, wave one down, hop on, pay as you get off.

Coming up the road we hear loud reggae and bass and see a bus going full speed with its door wide open. Welcome to Tongan transport!


On we hopped, grinning in anticipation. The driver gave you 2 seconds to find a seat before roaring back into life and the party bus filled up. On and off, stop and start, old and young, school and university students, hoodies and impeccable uniforms.

This was where my first eye opening experience happened. The houses; I guess I was expecting simple houses but I hadn't really thought about it. Tonga is still quite a poor and under developed country and from what we saw, building regulations aren't policed. Some resembled broken down farm buildings, shacks, tin and wood, boarded up windows, no windows, sheets for doors, houses that were once grand but not build well so now slumping, some very new, well kept and fenced properties. It was a real mixed bag and something I've never experienced before. From this moment we realised we needed to drop preconceived notions, comparisons, expectations and go with the flow.


Predominantly Chinese owned, junk filled dairies (photo below) were every kilometre or so and dogs, pigs and chooks were all over - which was actually pretty cool for us! (See more below).


We were lucky to have a young local girl sit next to me on the bus, who was studying business in Nuku'alofa so she showed us where to get off near the Talamahu markets. I wasn't sure what to expect here and totally forgot to take photos but will pop some from Google below. The Tongan sellers at the market at this time of the year mainly had tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, cabbages, watermelon, lettuce and bananas where as the Chinese locals had a larger variety such as spring onions, beans, bok choy and many other recognisable and unrecognisable items. Because of the influx of variety in produce from the Chinese there felt to be some hostility between them but wither way produce was relatively standard and  as I mentioned above, things like papaya were mostly non existent thanks to the earlier cyclone.

The Talamahu Markets in Nuku'alofa.

We didn't really know what we were looking at or for and actually hadn't examined our cooking options back at Heilala (which proved to be one gas hob) so we didn't buy a lot - just mandarins, tomatoes and their lovely wee bananas then got some beef sausages from a small supermarket (and chips and lemonade which featured heavily on this holiday).

One thing that saved us in getting around Tonga was roaming data and Google Maps - without the maps it would have been very daunting! From the markets we went to Friends cafe, one of the oldest style colonial buildings in Tonga and one of the only places we saw other non-Tongans. A quick snack of purple kumala fries, potato fries and iced coffee before a wander past parliament and across the waterfront then getting a big surprise with an enormous ship in the harbour! After some digging I found that the ship is run by the Chinese Navy and is going around the islands providing hospital care and minor surgeries having already been to Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. (Are you noticing a heavy presence of Chinese mentions? It surprised us too).

In the town of Nuku'alofa it was HOT without the westerly sea breeze and the kids had had enough so we managed to navigate our way back to something resembling a bus stop, brought the kids a cheap bouncy ball each (one of our best purchases) and found our 'Hihifo' labelled bus to take us an hour back to Heilala Lodge. The bus rides were actually great fun! Note they stop running by 5pm so be prepared for that.

Here is the best map I could find of Tongatapu. The yellow line shows where we stayed at the top left and how far we traveled into Nuku'alofa. Quite big right? I have also put a little cross by 'Atata which I will talk about in Part 2.

By this stage it was Monday afternoon and for the rest of the day - and all of the next we swam with the fish, taught Izzy to snorkel, played in the hammock, ate coconuts (I found a fresh green one, got a machete from the kitchen and got myself a mean feed!), read books and had turns relaxing and building sandcastles. 

By Wednesday we thought we'd pop back into Nuku'alofa for a look. We left early to avoid the afternoon heat and had already decided to get lunch at Marcels Pizza place - a funny location where we shared two pizzas. It was run by a middle aged Italian (?) guy with a baby on his hip and a tribe of locals out the back, I think Dave thought I was leading him down some dodgy back road but we found it and it was 'OKAY'. We then had our mind set on the fish markets to take something back for dinner so we walked 1.2km down the waterfront to find them. Once we got there we realised we felt slightly out of our depth, we didn't recognise the fish types, the kids were put off by the smell and squid hanging over tables and after a wee look decided we'd have burgers back at Holtys again (cop outs, I know!). The win here was finding a bottle store across the road that stocked premixed bourbon and small packs of beer! We are on holiday afterall...

The next day was Thursday and we were off on our next adventure to 'Atata Island at 10am! We had met Rachel, a taxi driver the day before and had organised for her to pick us up at 8am to take us to the boat for $40 TOP (Tongan pa'anga - about $26 NZD). Sure enough, she was there and we were off! More about that exceptional place in Part 2.

I happened to take a lot more photos there so prepare yourself! 



We chose Tonga firstly as we knew a little about it from Sarahshe fell in love with the place, secondly because it has a low tourist density. The last thing we wanted was to be surrounded by other Kiwis and Aussies - we wanted to meet the locals, learn some new words and absorb the culture.

Some of this is going to look quite negative but please know the positives outweighed them by far and are coming in their droves in Part 2, first I want to address some of the more notable issues we discovered in the first few days.



The first thing that took our attention on the night time drive was the masses of dogs and over the next 10 days they became a mixed attraction. The resort dogs were healthy, well fed and very friendly - this we loved and spent a lot of time with them. On the other hand, the street dogs and pets weren't so healthy. Lot's of mange, fleas, malnutrition and I didn't see one female dog that didn't have droopy puppy nipples. The old dogs limped, one even had large open tumours that I saw from the bus... An upside is that every 'wild' dog we came across didn't want a bar of us. Completely non-agressive, just disinterested and used to being shunted and ignored. We found out later that in Tonga, dogs are the lowest creature in the pecking order, lower than the pigs. As a family of  dog lovers and as a vet nurse, this was hard to accept at times.

(Best case scenario - send myself and a team over on a huge desexing and education drive for three months and let me help sort this issue out. Reality I suppose is different but the welfare of the islands dogs needs some attention - now to think who would fund this?)

Here is a collection of not OVERLY terrible doggy shots.


Another animal that was everywhere from houses to beaches and bushes were the pigs! These were pretty cool actually, most were in fantastic condition and many with piglets. The looked pretty well cared for which was great! On a slightly unsavoury but related note - the pork here is delicious! They eat a lot of coconut and scraps so it's dark juicy meat with much more flavour that the white kiwi stuff!


Junk food

This was sad, frustrating and infuriating. How dare Western and Asian people come in and dump shitty, cheap, fake food on these beautiful islands! Chips with more numbers than recognisable food ingredients, fizzy drink everywhere especially (horrible) pineapple fanta! Biscuits and cheap dairy styled lollies. Kids and adults sucking on lollipops, sculling fizzy drink outside dairies. Oreos, crackers and more damn chips! Not only are they plaguing these islands but the education around them appears to be non existent. This is a point where I wondered than in 'finding' and nudging our way into these islands, perhaps we have done more harm than good?

Because of this radical change in diet life expectancy has fallen to age 64, up to 40% of the population has Type 2 diabetes. 

One of the most popular foods responsible for this actually isn't processed - it is NZs exported mutton and lamb flaps (known there as sipi) Every 100g includes approximately 40g fat (half of it saturated fat) and contains 420 calories. From what I have read and seen, some people eta up to 1kg of them in a sitting. It's cheap and being that it is imported, it's seen as superior. Sipi, Moa (chicken drums) and rarely, sausages were the only meats we found in the freezers. In articles I have since read it has been stated that "Tonga is the most obese country in the world thanks to New Zealands mutton flaps." 

What the hell have we done? It's hard not to feel responsible for some of this as a NZer... (Don't even get me started on corned beef in a can.)


Which brings me to the next point...




With shitty food comes shitty plastic. With a culture of throwing your scraps to the pigs and dogs comes a sad view. Plastic bags, plastic shoes, plastic bottles, tin drinking cans, old appliances, chips bags, biscuit packets, Coca Cola lids, rubber shoe soles, straws and more. These items are half buried in beaches, partially burnt down country roads, in the gutters with the cigarette butts...

Don't get me wrong, I know I'm being stroppy and blunt here - 90% of the views in Tonga are exceptional, eye opening, beautiful as are the people. Then you look down at your feet and see the extent of plastic pollution. This is no disrespect to Tonga - this is a worldwide issue and one it's easy to be oblivious to in NZ as we are very good as using bins, recycling and picking up after ourselves. It was a shock to see the reality of what social media and the news has been telling us lately. It's really opened our eyes and before we even left we had stainless steel drink bottles on order for all of us.

The collection below was from a largely deserted rural beach on the outskirts of town and all photos were taken within a 12 metre radius. Not everywhere is this bad, but this was an example of the situation at hand.


Now I must apologies for winding down on a negative note but I couldn't not be honest about all parts of our experience, no matter how dire.

I've read nothing like the above about Tonga anywhere and I could have easily put on my rose tinted glasses when writing and only told you the good things. I feel like I have a bit of moral and social responsibility to be real and not sugar coat what is going on around the world and I also feel a bit of responsibility as a kiwi, just 3 hours from this beautiful country to do something, say something.

If there is one take away here it is PLEASE reduce your plastic usage, listen to the media on this topic, take some responsibility and be proud, tidy kiwis.


Part 2

Lets focus on the good stuff now! The crystal clear waters, the tropical fish and the.... whales!


..... to be continued